Translated by Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2013:2 issue.
It is an unusually rainy autumn up in the very north of Sweden. The region is a vast area of pure wilderness with majestic rivers, where huge dam constructions supply water for hydroelectric power stations. The prolonged downpours mean water levels are rising dangerously, but it still comes as a profound shock when the first dam bursts and a vast mass of water is unleashed, rupturing further dams and creating an inland tsunami that floods the whole area. Mikael Niemi’s dramatic story reads like a tense psychological action thriller, focusing on a group of people and how they are affected by the disaster.
In extremis some struggle against the odds to save loved ones and cherished possessions, while others use the situation to take advantage of defenceless victims. The fiendishly humourous eye we saw in Niemi’s earlier novel in this setting, the rumbustious Populärmusik från Vittula (Popular Music from Vittula), is in evidence again in the characterisation here; the author creates great empathy while also anatomising his cast of interacting individuals mercilessly in a time of crisis and chaos. The extract that follows is Chapter 5 of the novel.
Barney Lundmark pressed down the lever on his pump-action thermos flask and filled a plastic mug three-quarters full of this morning’s coffee brew. He always brewed enough for a large thermos so that he would have enough to keep him going all day at work. He had overcome the myth that coffee must always be fresh while he was still a schoolboy and had a weekend job in a cafe. The owner was on the mean side, and taught Barney how to collect all the remains sloshing around in the coffee machines at the end of the day. The following day they simply warmed it up, and served it again. No customer ever noticed any difference – in fact, several regular customers came to the cafe for their breakfast coffee because they thought it tasted especially good. In reality, it was all down to the crockery used. The cups had to look expensive and should be carried to the customers by a waiter with an expression on his face of such awed concentration that it suggested he badly needed to go to the loo: yesterday’s left-overs were washed down with nary a hint of protest.
But now he worked for the giant hydroelectric firm Vattenfall – an appropriate name in view of the fact that it means ‘waterfall’ – and in his office drank coffee from a plastic mug. The Luleå office had adopted a recycling policy and ordered the use of porcelain cups, to be washed and re-used in eco-friendly fashion. But he thought bollocks to that: let them do that in town if they wanted, but out in the sticks there were other priorities. He was often called out on service missions, and he could take his pumpaction thermos with him on such occasions. There were two cup-holders built into a door pocket in the company car he used, just the thing for a mug for himself and another for any grateful engineer accompanying him on a call. No mucking around. In the sticks, easy fix.
‘Would you like some coffee?’ he could say. ‘It’s made using the freshest electricity in Sweden.’
In a way that was true. It was electricity made from water from the enormous Suorva reservoir that fed the sockets in the coffee room, via the turbines in Vietas. The reservoir contained an astonishing mass of water. The tiny amount of electricity he’d used to heat up his coffee machine was the equivalent of taking a teaspoonful of water from the Niagara Falls. All the rest of the power raced away along very thick cables held up by what seemed to be a column of pylons marching with military precision along corridors as straight as arrows to the distant urban centres of southern Sweden.
It would soon be time for the girls to come and have coffee. What were their names again, Carina and Carolina? Or was it Carola and Catrin? But they kept their distance. Typical! Now when he had some female company at last in his remote outpost, they were too posh to socialise with an ordinary worker. They were bustling around up by the dam, sticking little rods with flexes attached into the ground, making calls on their mobiles and tapping away at their portable computers. Okay, there was a bit of a crisis on just now. All that rain, and every mountain stream was gushing forth with more force than at any time during the spring floods, even though it was well into September now. The reservoirs were over-full, the spillway sluices had been opened all the way down the river valley. It felt most frustrating in fact: a hell of a lot of electricity was simply being sacrificed – enough to supply many a suburb for the whole winter. But it had happened before and would no doubt happen again. You had to expect the occasional wet autumn. It was part of the plan. The flood of the century, or even the flood of the millennium – the dams were built to withstand the worst imaginable conditions. As soon as the autumn chill descended, things would calm down.
A door slammed. Catharina (or whatever her name was) came in, soaking wet through. Water dripped from her hard hat and down onto the coffee table.
‘There’s coffee,’ he said. ‘Made with the freshest electricity–’
‘I haven’t time.’
Oh no, he thought. Why the hell did you come here, then?
‘Is it raining too much for you?’ he said.
‘Is all going well with the measurements?’
‘Can I have your mobile? Mine has conked out.’
‘All the damp, no doubt,’ said Barney.
‘Of course it’s the damp. Can I have yours, I need to keep in touch with Luleå.’
‘If you ask nicely.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘If you ask me really nicely.’
‘Yes, yes. Can I have your telephone now. Please.’
‘No,’ he said again. ‘I need my telephone myself, it’s my phone – but you can have a cup of coffee.’
‘The telephone belongs to Vattenfall,’ she said.
‘The hell it does,’ he said.
‘Come on now, give me that telephone. That’s an order.’
Barney eyed her with increasing interest. Aha. An awkward bitch. They weren’t exactly unusual, but he was obviously faced with a prime example.
‘Not even if you suck my cock,’ he said with a smile.
‘What the hell was that you said?’
His whole face lit up. He took a slurp of coffee and couldn’t resist it:
‘Are you going to wet yourself now?’
‘Listen here, I’m going to report you. Sexual harassment. They’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks.’
‘Your word against mine,’ he said casually.
‘In cases like this they always believe the woman.’
‘Oh dear, now you really are wetting yourself,’ he said. ‘Drip, drip.’
She had actually started trembling. She would explode at any moment. Were they so fragile nowadays, didn’t they have any experience of a real working environment? Didn’t they learn anything in their colleges? Every foreman and manager ought to know that you always accepted when an ordinary worker invited you to a cup of coffee. You made the time, to show that you were human.
‘Come on now,’ she said. ‘It’s a critical situation out there, I have to phone Luleå without delay.’
‘A critical situation?’
‘It’s the dam.’
Barney pretended to be stupid. Since that job in the cafe he must have had at least thirty more, including work dealing with emergencies and taking so-called legal proceedings. He was well aware of how the pyramid worked. Your boss also has a boss. The best way of dealing with problems was to pass them on to somebody higher up in the hierarchy. Nonchalantly, he took his mobile out of its waterproof pouch on his belt, held it out tantalizingly, then whipped back just as she was about to grasp it.
‘Take it then! Come on, take it!’
He whipped it back again, leaving her hand clawing clumsily at thin air. She gave up, resigned to the worst. As he had the phone in his hand, he pressed a few buttons. No messages, okay. But a missed call – who could that have been?...
Like a cobra she grabbed hold of the telephone. Wrenched it out of his hand with unexpected strength. He reacted instinctively, without time to think. Felt his arm swinging. The side of his hand hit her on the ear just under the edge of her hard hat, she staggered sideways towards the door, smashed into it with her back but managed to remain upright.
‘Give it back!’ he yelled.
But she had already left. His hand was hurting, he’d hit against the plastic of her helmet. The bloody bitch! Barney pulled on his overcoat and was just about to run after her when he stopped dead. He could feel something. A mumbling sound seemed to be rising up through his feet. There was movement as well, a sort of heaving. As if something very large and very heavy was changing its position. Then nothing.
A more imaginative person might have interpreted it as an earthquake. It reminded him of when he used to live in Malmberget some years ago, the area near Kiruna where all the iron ore mines were located. The low-key warning sounds that throbbed through the earth’s crust. The foundations that cracked, the cellar doors that suddenly became impossible to close. Mine shafts that collapsed despite concrete spraying and rock reinforcements.
If he’d had his mobile he would have immediately rung Baudin and sounded the alarm. That confounded woman, he really must catch up with her. He hadn’t hit her, it had been a reflex action. She had provoked him. Barney ran out into the mist, buttoning up his raincoat and listening to the rain pounding down onto his hard hat. There she was. Running along the path leading up to the dam, following the crest of the hill in a long, gentle curve. She looked back over her shoulder, caught sight of him, and increased her pace. He set off running, but he wasn’t in the best of condition. His running soon became jogging, and then a brisk walk. He would catch up with her sooner or later. It was his telephone after all – she couldn’t simply come here from Luleå and insult him. An insult was exactly what it was. He might just as well be prepared in case she really did report their little tiff.
He stopped dead a short way along the top of the dam. In front of him, running at right-angles across the asphalt, was a wavy crack. It was quite wide, several centimetres. He was absolutely certain that it hadn’t been there earlier in the morning. Barney knelt down and stuck his finger into it. It was dry down at the bottom. The rain hadn’t had time to penetrate that far down, so it must have happened within the last few minutes. Not good. Not good at all. Now he really did need his mobile phone. Where was that thieving bitch?!